The Road Haulage Association (RHA) last month demanded “urgent intervention” from the government to tackle what it called “enormous challenges facing critical supply chains” as a result of the post-Brexit EU trading arrangements, adding that it was “not doing enough to address them”.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett called on government to support the industry through difficulties with transport to Northern Ireland and Ireland, with compensation for hauliers that have “so far suffered significant losses”.
The letter also warned of broader problems including a shortage of customs agents to support intermediaries in the export chain. It said that as many as 50,000 customs brokers might be required, but so far there were only 10,000 in place.
Days later, the Observer newspaper reported RHA suggestions that 65 to 75 per cent of trailers that had come from the EU were returning empty. Exports may have declined by as much as 68 per cent in January against the previous year, the newspaper said, citing a survey of RHA members engaged in international road transport, and quoting British Ports Association chief Richard Ballantyne as suggesting the figure was “broadly in line” with his impressions.
Richard Burnett told the Observer: “Michael Gove is the master of extracting information from you and giving nothing back… Pretty much every time we have written over the last six months he has not responded in writing. He tends to get officials to start working on things, but the responses are a complete waste of time because they don’t listen to what the issues were that we raised in the first place.”
The Cabinet Office later issued a response to points in the RHA’s letter and Observer article, in which it claimed that: “Thanks to the hard work put in by hauliers and traders… disruption at the border has so far been minimal.” It said it “did not recognise” the 68 per cent drop in exports figure, and that both outbound and inbound flows were “close to normal” at 95 per cent and 96 per cent respectively in the week beginning 30 January.
The RHA had suggested in its letter that “there is a misconception that trade flows are greater than they are”, because empty trailers were not being considered in the statistics provided by ferry and Channel crossing providers.
The government also cited French data putting the figure of empty returning vehicles at “closer to 50 per cent”, adding that empty lorries on the outbound, UK-to-EU leg were “entirely normal” and that this figure stood at “around 30 per cent” prior to 1 January. Meanwhile, it called the 50,000 customs broker requirement “an arbitrary industry calculation” which “is not and never has been a government target”.
Not all RHA members have been impacted adversely by Brexit; Toby Ovens, managing director of Wiltshire’s Broughton Transport Solutions, reports a boom in business. The share of work undertaken by his diverse fleet had increased from 40 per cent before Christmas to 60 per cent in late January, and he has an application pending to increase his operator’s licence from 35 to 45 trucks to cope with the extra business
“Four years ago, I voted for Brexit because I had seen Britain’s international transport sector being cut to ribbons by low-cost competition,” he told Transport Operator.
“Six months ago, the going rate for a load to Milan was£1,200, and £500 of that would be absorbed in ferry fares and tunnel tolls. It was impossible for us to work for those rates: an Eastern European driver might be on £100 a week while I’m paying mine £150 a day.
“We are already noticing fewer Eastern Europeans on British roads, and those that are do not want a return (export) load, because their pricing structure is based on euros per kilometre and they cannot afford to risk a delay. They can earn more staying on the continent. The press reports are correct in as much as there were some delays initially – we had a 60-hour hold-up on one – but I can confidently say we have got to grips with the situation now. It only takes three hours to get through veterinary inspection with a trailer load of meat.
“I’ve seen the reports that there is less being exported. I can only say that we are experiencing a massive increase in export freight. Our trucks are going further into Europe than ever.Before Brexit, it would be unheard of for us to send a truck to Prague, but I sent seven last week. We now send loads to Estonia. I’m amazed by the amount of work.”
Mr Ovens is untroubled by arguments that the increased cost of using British hauliers will be bad for the UK.
“Far from it,” he contends. “Our cost-base is in the UK, and money spent on UK hauliers now would have gone abroad previously. Our British drivers are earning good money and paying UK tax. We are spending money with UK suppliers. I’ve got six local companies using us now that wouldn’t have used us before Brexit because we were ‘too expensive’ but the money they spend with us is going into the local economy. That’s good for everyone.
“From July, I anticipate the situation getting even better because there will be customs on the import side as well. That should see the end of the low-cost hauliers coming to Britain.”
He acknowledges there have been problems for large hauliers carrying groupage: “Groupage ground to a halt in the second week of January. The Eastern European just stopped moving trailers. You only need one mistake in the paperwork for one consignment on a trailer and the whole lot is delayed.
“We did a lot of leg work before January, but it was still a steep learning curve for us. We were able to do it because I use my own lorries and drivers. If there are any problems, communication lines are very short so they can be sorted out. That’s not the case with companies that choose to use subcontractors, or put up signs on roundabouts looking for hauliers wanting backloads.
“It’s important to attract the right drivers. It’s better to give each driver a truck he will love, and have drivers you can rely on rather than an ever-changing flow of people you hardly know.”
Elsewhere, Logistics UK raised concerns around the Northern Ireland protocol at a government roundtable on 18 February, chaired by Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič.
Logistics UK policy manager Seamus Leheny said the roundtable had “opened a vital new dialogue” but that there was “much work still to be done to smooth trade flows”.
“Firstly, we want to see the development of a Retail Movement Scheme to govern the transportation of agri-food goods, plants and animals between GB and NI,” he said.
“The checks on these items – known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks – must be proportionate to the low risk these items present to health to prevent any unnecessary administration and delays.
“Secondly, industry needs to see the introduction of a Trusted Trader status for parcel operators to reduce expensive administrative burdens placed on business-to-consumer consignments.
“And finally, to enable the successful delivery of these schemes, the grace periods currently in place under the protocol must be extended sufficiently to enable longer-term simplifications to be agreed and implemented.”